President Joe Biden’s inaugural address was an optimistic call for unity and a recognition of the democracy that held up under attack to deliver him to office. But it was also marked by the solemnity of what he characterized as his first act as president, calling for a moment of “solemn prayer” for the 400,000 Americans lost to COVID-19.
That was the balance Biden worked throughout to strike—between the sorrow of what’s been lost and hope for the future, between acknowledgement of the unprecedented assault on democracy coming from his predecessor in the White House and celebration of the strength of that democracy.
“This is America’s day,” he said. “This is democracy’s day. A day of history and hope. Of renewal and resolve. Through a crucible for the ages, America has been tested anew, and America has risen to the occasion.”
In an inaugural address that looked forward much more than back, the contrasts with Biden’s predecessor were nonetheless not difficult to spot, starting with Biden’s insistence that we “Celebrate not a candidate but a cause, the cause of democracy.”
Biden thanked “my predecessors from both parties for their presence here today” and cited his conversation with former President Jimmy Carter. So there was one notable omission there, because of the one person who chose not to be there, but Biden could extend that bipartisan hand of thanks.
The invocation of unity as the central theme of his inaugural address didn’t keep Biden from confronting some of the most important issues, though, like the “rise of political extremism, white supremacy, domestic terrorism that we must confront and we will defeat.” Unity, instead, is his answer to that: “This is our historic moment of crisis and challenge. But unity is the path forward.”
Ultimately, Biden offered a promise, about surviving the pandemic and overcoming the assault on democracy alike: “We will get through this together.” We may not all be so optimistic, but neither did Biden sound conciliatory. He sounded like someone determined to rise to the moment.